A Polish mother asked me after a workshop in Barcelona, “Won’t it be difficult for my son to learn to speak Polish correctly, since this language has consonants that are very difficult to pronounce?” If her Spanish husband had asked me, I would have understood this concern a little better, since, from the point of view of a native Spanish speaker, the set of sounds of the Polish language does have many new features. But the fact that a native speaker finds their own language difficult, when presumably they did not have to make a particular effort to learn it, is one of the ways in which fear of multilingualism manifests itself.
The “difficult” or “easy” language criterion can only be interpreted from the perspective of another language, since the distance between two languages determines how difficult the second one is to learn. No monolingual person finds their own language difficult. However, the languages you will learn later in life will test you, depending on the distance between the new language and your native language. For example, a Tibetan child can learn Mandarin about as easily as an Italian child learns Spanish.
However, if a young child learns different languages from a young age, they will be able to learn several ”first” languages. At this age they are better able to accurately imitate the sounds, rhythms and other musical elements of a language as well as the language’s grammatical system. That is why this period is so important, even though they still barely show signs of progress.
However, it may take longer to reap the rewards of this process if the child has to learn very different languages. In other words, more time is needed to acquire greater phonetic richness. It can also take longer to learn different grammatical systems and unsimilar vocabulary or concepts.
However, we shouldn’t think that learning close languages doesn’t present any difficulties. Children learning related languages face other kinds of challenges. It is true that they usually start to communicate much faster in their languages, as they find more mutual support in them because of the similarities. This helps both written and oral comprehension. They also find it easier to carry on a conversation, because more language elements can be borrowed than when a child is learning distant languages. Despite the small differences in the form of words in nearby languages, they can very easily be borrowed for verbal communication in the other language in which they have not yet been learned. This easy success gives the child the impression that they already know the correct word and if the environment does not help them by telling them the corresponding word or conjugation in the other language, they will continue using the borrowed one. The consequence of this is suffered to a greater degree in written work, because what is borrowed should not be used there. Learners need to know the authentic forms in each language, because loan words with similar phonetics can be spelled very differently.
A French family that lives in Barcelona asked me for help a few months ago, and they sent me some essays by their 9-year-old daughter. The Catalan texts were full of words and phrases written in Spanish and French. It is very difficult to evaluate a text of this type in the same way as is done with monolingual students. It doesn’t make sense to grade this essay simply by counting the errors. Instead, it is important to completely separate the linguistic formulation from the content, and treat each one separately. Then, the teacher should focus on creating the foundations of a personalised long-term strategy.
Although the languages are close, work needs to be done on each one of them. For example, work should be done at the reading level. Although books are important for any child, for multilinguals they are fundamental and not only in the case of distant languages, but also when they are related. If multilingual children don’t read in all their languages, the lack of vocabulary tempts them to borrow words from one language or another as in the example above.
If the languages are very distant, children do not have that option and in their case it is clearer what they really can say or write in one language or in another. It is more likely that they seem less communicative to us, due to the greater difficulty of using loanwords from their other languages. So, they need a different kind of support.
Children who grow up speaking more than two languages may find themselves in both situations; some of their languages may be close, and others may be distant. This should be considered when assessing their language learning and performance. However, let’s not forget that distance is only one of the factors that influences language learning; that is to say, it is not the cause of every issue.